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Full text of "The function of educational institutions in development of research"

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[Reprint from The University of California Chronicle, Vol. XXII, No. 2, April, 1920] 



John C. Merriam 

In this day of application of science in every department 
of human interest, we naturally find investigative work 
conducted by a great variety of institutions. The relating 
of research to this wide range of activities is now recog- 
nized as essential. It is also considered important that in 
all types of constructive work there be a certain similarity 
in method of approach, but recent studies have raised 
a question concerning possible duplication of effort, and 
therefore of inefficiency in our organization of science and 

The following note has been written with the aim to 
define the special functions characterizing research of 
educational institutions in contrast with those of other 
organized effort directed toward the advance of knowledge. 
For the purposes of this discussion it has been necessary 
to consider a tentative classification of fundamental types 
of research agencies. Fuller recognition of the specific 
objects in these several fields of endeavor, it is believed, 
may lead to larger efficiency and better scientific organiza- 
tion of the country as a whole. 

Without assuming to present a complete or exact classi- 
fication, we may divide our greater research efforts into five 
groups: (1) research of practical application in engineer- 
ing laboratories; (2) governmental bureaus and labora- 
tories; (3) research foundations; (4) museums and allied 
institutions; (5) educational institutions. To these five a 


complete statemenl would add several of Lesser magnitude, 
among which a very potent force is found in effort of 
individuals working privately, as has been done to the great 
advantage of science by many pioneers in investigation. 
In order to make clear the posith E educational institu- 
tions with relation to the other four kinds of research 
agencies, it is necessary to give an approximate definition 
of each type. 

(1) The expression of research referred to as "practical 
application in engineering laboratories" includes use of 
science in development of economic interests in the great 
variety of ways in which investigation contributes to the 
good of mankind. The words "engineer" and "science" 
are here used in the widest sense, covering the appliers 
of knowledge secured by investigation. The operations 
of this group might be illustrated by the constructor of 
railways, the builder of aeroplanes, or the dentist. The 
work of the engineer in all of the fields in which he operates 
may unfortunately be carried on by rule of thumb applica- 
tion without consideration of the special merits of each 
case. The true engineer we all recognize as one who views 
each problem as a new subject for special study. In a large 
measure his judgment must be based upon previous experi- 
ence with similar studies, but his greatest success comes 
through realization of the fact that each bridge to be built, 
whether it be intended to cross a river or only to reach 
from one tooth to another, presents a special problem not 
identical with any previously considered case; and that 
failure to see the individual peculiarities may mean inabil- 
ity to make full use of the principles which are his instru- 
ments. The successful engineer is continuously engaged 
in the application of research methods. 

In a still larger sense does the engineer concern himself 
with research problems by consideration of questions which 
are not merely specific applications, but involve principles 
which must be better understood before he is able to pro- 
ceed. The dentist recognizes that knowledge of microscopic 

structure of the tooth is of fundamental importance in his 
treatment of tissues if this work is to have value in a degree 
of permanence measured in years or tens of years. The 
railroad builder realizes that not all rock foundations give 
real stability to a railway bed, and that an understanding 
of the material through which he cuts may determine the 
ultimate value of his constructive work. These investiga- 
tions in engineering inquiry we often designate as research 
in applied science. They differ from those in so-called pure 
science only in the fact that the research of the engineer is 
specifically directed, and by nature of the inquiry is rather 
narrowly limited ; whereas the real solution of the problem 
may lie in a rather remote field. The railway builder may 
find the answer to his engineering questions in special 
phases of chemistry or petrography which were not included 
in the curriculum of his training course. 

Even with the limitations which are set in investigations 
designed to meet specific needs in restricted fields of applied 
science, we must recognize that the everyday operations 
of great laboratories conducted by far-seeing corporations 
are developing some of the most significant advances in 
fundamental science of today. The student of pure science 
must always keep in close contact with these special 
researches, both to be helpful and to receive from the 
engineer the great wealth of data which should be incorpo- 
rated into the organized body of fundamental science. 

(2) Government institutions, as exemplified by the fed- 
eral bureaus and laboratories of the United States, repre- 
sent a field which is in some respects intermediate between 
that of engineers who apply and that of the special students 
of pure science concerned only with the principles of their 
subject. The laboratories of government departments exist 
for the special purpose of contributing for the benefit of 
the community. It is necessary that they serve as sources 
of information for practical applications and for interpre- 
tation of the principles of science to the great group of 
enquiring engineers throughout the country. 


Consideration of scientific problems relating to specific 
community needs Leads ili«' government bureau to under- 
take Ear-reaching and fundamental investigations in the 
broadesl fields of applied Bcience. Such researches, by 
reason of the wride range of interests covered, may extend 
farther than the studies of the engineer or the corporation. 
As institutions which stand for a continuing people, the 
government bureaus should be able to undertake inquiries 
from which results mighl first become available to later gen- 
erations. It is unfortunate thai budget requirements and 
responsibilities of political parties tend to limit us in hand- 
ling of projects which should be continued for long periods 
or with large funds, for the expenditure of which immediate 
returns may not be visible. It is presumably true that all 
science has its application in one form or another, but 
exceptional vision is required in organization of govern- 
ment work to make it clear that every phase of each investi- 
gation undertaken represents efficient application of science 
for real needs. By reason of its practical limitations the 
government organization may lose opportunity for con- 
sideration of certain critical problems, the settlement of 
which would ultimately be of great advantage to the state. 

(3) Research foundations, with ample resources, free- 
dom of choice in selection of objectives, and with trained 
men of vision directing their researches, have given oppor- 
tunity not otherwise available for exhaustive investigation 
of fundamental problems and groups of problems without 
regard to the time required in the study, and without 
reference to immediacy of pressure for application. These 
institutions have in some measure covered the fields for 
basic investigation which the corporation engineer and the 
government bureau could not readily reach. The efficiency 
attained by these foundations, the vision with which their 
problems have been selected, and the great contributions 
which they have made to science, to human thought, and 
to application of science in everyday life, rank among the 
greatest achievements of American science. 

(4) The great museums of America have been strong- 
holds of research in the natural sciences. Their function 
has generally involved the special study of wide or narrow 
geographic regions to which they are related through cir- 
cumstances governing their origin. The museums have also 
served a most important purpose as educators in natural 
history, supplementing in a vital way the work of the schools 
and universities. Through interpretation of science to 
the great public the museums have greatly assisted in 
the effort to make knowledge and reason the basis of our 
community judgment, and to give research the fullest 
opportunity to serve the people. 

In organization of purely research projects the museums 
have contributed a large share of the material upon which 
the advance of American natural history has been based. 

The work of these institutions is in general character- 
ized by their peculiarly close relation to the public welfare, 
both in effective educational work and in the support of 
fundamental investigations for the sake of their human 
interest. They fill a most important place in the scheme 
of our research development. 

(5) The educational institutions of America, as repre- 
sented by the universities and colleges, have always had a 
large place in the advance of knowledge in all its phases and 
in its application. Their range of operation in constructive 
scholarship has been as wide as the limits of learning and 
its use. 

In schools of engineering and agriculture, research has 
been largely on specific problems of application not differ- 
ing from those of the engineer's laboratory or the govern- 
ment bureau. Here, as in the departments of fundamental 
science, the researches have also ranged into all phases of 
description, organization, interpretation, and analysis in 
special phases of science for which no immediate applica- 
tion is considered. These activities have been financed in 
some part by the universities, and in part from the pockets 
of the professors. Considerable support has also come from 


business interests, from government institutions, and from 
research foundations. 

The university or college includes ('(instructive work as 
a necessary part of its regular programme for at least four 
reasons, which niay be stated as follows ■ 

(a) Investigation is an indispensable means of keeping 
the faculty in a position to present the most fundamental 
and most advanced knowledge through its teaching. 

(&) Training in creative or constructive work is one 
of the most important phases of teaching and can be carried 
out successfully only through actual experience of the 

(c) The state will naturally depend upon the institution 
of higher learning as an exceptionally organized group of 
constructive experts prepared to consider urgent questions 
requiring investigation. 

(d) As a body representing a wide range of closely 
interlocking subjects having continuous relation to research 
in one form or another, the university affords unusual 
opportunity for correlation of knowledge on questions in 
new fields of thought. 

In considering the first reason (a) we must realize that, 
even if the universities be assumed to exist only for teach- 
ing, tiny are expected to present the most advanced 
thought, and we cannot keep them in a position of leader- 
ship in understanding and in training without a faculty 
continuously setting forth the best in thought and experi- 
ence in every subject. This condition can be maintained 
either by continuous research on the part of the faculty 
or by continuous renewing of the membership of the faculty. 
Continuous replacement of individuals is impossible, as 
the institution is a great and complex instrument in which 
the parts can be kept in proper adjustment only through 
long contact. It therefore becomes necessary for the faculty 
to keep its position by continuous growth of its members. 
If this process is merely imitative, the teacher is not an 
authority. The only way in which he can be assured of 


growth is by working in his specialty. This constructive 
operation involves intimate knowledge of the fundamentals 
of his subject and definition of the limits and relationships 
of his chosen field of study. 

More than this, the function of teaching in an educa- 
tional institution does not concern alone the retailing of 
facts already assembled : it must include that kind of under- 
standing of the subject which will prepare the student for 
his task as a leader in the future. To become such a leader 
the student must look beyond our present knowledge and 
experience with the expectation of accomplishing things 
which have never before been done. No good instructor can 
avoid recognizing this need of his students. No teacher 
who sees this requirement can fail to make a serious effort 
to determine the direction of advance in constructive use 
of his subject, if for nothing more than to point out to 
students the trend of the path and the preparation neces- 
sary for those by whom it will be extended to new fields of 
usefulness. It is hardly possible for the instructor to obtain 
a clear view of future development in his subject without 
intimate personal relation to the most advanced work in 

From the point of view of the student, training in 
constructive work or in development of creative imagina- 
tion, suggested in point (&), must be considered of im- 
portance at least equal to the securing of information or 
the disciplining of the mind to habits of work. As in 
no other type of mental attitude, this involves the acquir- 
ing of a distinct love of the work and understanding of 
its purpose. It is not conceivable that the university 
will neglect this extraordinarily important aspect of the 
student's preparation for future activity or that it will 
expect him to proceed without guidance. If this particu- 
lar phase of educational activity is not to be eliminated, it 
places upon the instructor the requirement that he stand 
before the student as an unmistakable representative of 
creative work, and as illustrating in his personal attainment 


the end or purpose of his effort. Evidence of any other 
attitude <>n the part of the instructor will make useless 
whatever attempt he may make to serve as a leader or 
adviser in the field of constructive study. 

The third contribution of value (c) furnished by re- 
search related to education concerns the immediate use 
of the results of this study by the community. While 
the university is naturally assumed to be primarily an 
educational institution, it has been made clear that without 
continuing research it can neither provide adequate instruc- 
tion nor maintain its leadership in the educational work 
required. Constructive problems in all departments of 
investigation must be continuously the subject of successful 
handling, and the results of this work will be products of 
the first importance to the community. It is natural that 
to such an institution the whole people will look for the 
appearance of new ideas of broadest significance and of 
practical value. It is to be expected that the state will 
depend upon the university for information and will expect 
it to furnish the necessary knowledge and the constructive 
ability required in meeting new situations that make neces- 
sary the building of new plans of thought for community 
use. The contributions made by research in these institu- 
tions will generally tend to concern fundamental subjects 
and to group themselves on the more indefinite areas along 
the borders of knowledge, but it is frequently these broader 
principles which offer the largest opportunity for real 
addition to the sum of immediately useful information. 

The fourth reason (d) for including research as a part 
of the necessary programme of an institution of higher 
learning involves one of the distinguishing characteristics 
of the university. By reason of the extraordinary scope 
of interests represented in such a body, one might expect 
the unusual opportunity for contacts of investigators in 
related fields to produce new combinations of formulae, and 
through these the opening of new fields of discovery. No 
other organization presents the same wide range of sub- 


jects represented by leaders of thought who are normally 
investigators. To these conditions the university adds an 
unusual freedom of opportunity for choice of materials or 
combination of materials to be used in investigations, as 
also the stimulating influence of a continuous stream of 
students with new inquiries and new ideas. In no other 
type of institution engaged in investigation are the chances 
greater for contribution in fields representing either new 
groupings of subjects or areas which have thus far remained 
untouched by the workers of all organized departments 
of knowledge. 

For all of the reasons that have been presented research 
has now an established place in institutions for higher 
learning. The position of constructive work in the univer- 
sities is clearly not accidental but relates to the generic 
characters of these institutions. 

To the university viewed as the highest training school, 
investigation becomes as necessary for natural activity 
as eating and assimilating are to continued effectiveness 
of the biological organism. The research so necessary to 
continuance of adequate instruction we come to recognize 
as a normal part of the life of the institution, and we look 
to this kind of an organization in the course of its growth 
to produce much of value in the forefront of discovery and 

The university fails of its mission in creative work 
in many instances because, of all the types of institutions, 
it is the most imperfectly financed for this phase of the 
work which it should naturally conduct. With the clear 
requirement that, to keep its position in the first line of 
advanced thought, it must consist of men of the best type 
in the professions the university is often financed almost 
exclusively for teaching and administration without ref- 
erence to research, and it is assumed that the construc- 
tive work so necessary to development of the faculty and 
students will be cared for in other ways. Beyond funds 
for purchase of books, departments with large salary rolls 


for instruction often show almost nothing for constructive 
work. The ultimate result of this policy must be failure 
to attain the full measure of efficiency. Potential leaders 
in the faculty will either find support of their greatest con- 
tributions to knowledge outside the institution, or failing 
in this they will burn out like a lamp producing feeble light 
by burning a wick to which no oil is fed. 

The university, then, takes its place with other groups 
of research agencies of the couniry as an institution caring 
for the initial training of nearly all investigators, and 
particularly given to wide range of investigations among 
a great variety of fundamental subjects. Its activities in 
(•(instructive work will often run parallel with those of 
other kinds of organizations, but breadth of interest, wide 
range of contact, unusual freedom of relationship, and 
spontaneity will alwaj'S be among its characteristics. 



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of educati onal 
institutions in 
development of 


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